Enthusiastic fans enjoy the unexpected at Olympic equestrian events
Posted: Tuesday August 24, 2004 3:01PM; Updated: Tuesday August 24, 2004 3:18PM
It's a long way to the Markopoulo Olympic Equestrian Centre from the middle of Athens, an hour and 15 minutes by metro, bus and hoof, so to speak. Not that I'm complaining, because at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, the equestrian events were held in Sweden.
Wherever they are held, the horse events are on the margins of the Olympic hubbub, at least as they are seen through the filter of the mainstream U.S. media. But don't tell that to the thousands of enthusiastic fans who showed up for the second round of qualifying in jumping on Tuesday morning.
The place was packed and noisy, mostly at appropriate moments. The loudest fans were the Dutch -- who regard 2000 dressage gold medalist Anky van Grunsven as a national hero -- and, of course, the hometown Greeks, who furiously shushed each other when Emmanouela Athanassiades and her gelding, Rimini Z, were up. On Sunday in the first round of qualifying, the crowd's clapping and flag waving frightened Rimini Z, who turned in a horrible, penalty-filled performance.
"I know that all the spectators wanted was to support us, but the clapping was a disaster," Athanassiades said. For the record, the shushing today didn't help much. Rimini Z balked at one wall -- a four-point penalty for refusal -- and left a trail of dislodged fence rails for multiple penalties. After two days of qualifying, the pair had racked up a stunning 75 penalty points and finished next to last. The crowd clapped anyway.
For those of you who aren't well versed on the sport -- as I was not until a few hours ago -- equestrian is one of the few Olympic sports in which men and women compete against each other, and one of the few in which graybeards like Ian Millar, a 57-year-old Canadian who is competing in his record eighth Olympics, have a shot at glory. Furthermore, says Canadian journalist Karen Robinson, "It's the only Olympic event with two athletes, one of whom has the intelligence of a toddler and no motivation. If you let all the horses loose in here, none of them would jump." (Not surprisingly, the unmotivated athlete is also the most expensive: Most of the horses at Markopoulo are valued at more than $1 million, on average, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to transport.)
This morning's crowd saw some things equestrian spectators don't see very often, including one stallion belonging to the Swiss team, stopping during the countdown to the start to leisurely relieve himself, and another galloping through a water obstacle instead of jumping over it. Sadly, we also saw two horses get injured, a rare occurrence in jumping, according to Robinson. Each was loaded into a horse trailer to fates unknown. This Olympics has already been hard on the equine set: Earlier in the week, a horse that had been injured in the cross-country portion of the three-day event had to be destroyed.
Mostly we saw elegant performances, including a few flawless ones. American Beezie Madden and her horse, Authentic, were the only pair to turn in two perfect runs -- that makes them the ones to beat in the third round of individual qualifying tonight. Antonis Petris of Greece did well this morning, so he'll be back tonight, as will his legion of flag-waving countrymen. Even if they behave with perfect decorum, Petris may have his hands full with his horse, Gredo la Daviere, who has only competed once before at night, in a small competition on sand. "At night it is different, and many horses react strangely," said Petris.
Like this morning's throng, this evening's crowd may see a few things equestrian spectators don't see very often.